NOTES FROM A MUSKY TRAIL HIKER #2: My, What Big Leaves You Have
It’s less like exercise, and more like exploration. Each week I will share some biology observations from my hike on the Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area trail in Asbury.
As I hike the Musky Trail, I wage a one-woman battle to keep the hiking path clear of skunk cabbage, which at this stage, I appear to be losing. I look down in awe, and like Little Red Riding Hood, think to myself, “my, what big leaves you have!” The growing season for most things is still barely underway, but the skunk cabbage leaves are already up to 18 inches long and 12 inches wide. That’s impressive for a ground plant. But why?
Well, if the scent of a skunk cabbage is its most memorable attribute, its leaves are nonetheless its virtue. The plant is the first to emerge in spring because it is thermogenic; it makes heat. It melts the snow around it even when the ground is still frozen. Those huge leaves that pop out and grow so rapidly protect the wetlands by increasing humidity in the woods until the tree canopy is fully leafed out. Unlike the leaves of most plants that are very fibrous, skunk cabbage leaves are mostly water. They voraciously take water from the ground and evaporate it through their leaves. They dislike heat and strong sunlight – so by late July / early August, the skunk cabbage will disappear. And what a disappearing act it has – it essentially dissolves, evaporating into the air! Leaves may appear with small holes and hang down; parts will turn black and slimy. But you won’t find dry leaves on the ground. You should skip this one for your leaf collection.
I will continue to stomp on the cabbages that block the hiking trail in the meantime. Lucky me, I can’t smell skunk. I think my nose works fine otherwise, but I am completely unbothered by the unpleasant smell of skunk cabbage. Like everything in nature, this smell has a purpose too. It attracts pollinators like flesh flies and carrion flies. Some of the organic compounds the plant releases have super-appropriate names like putrescine and cadaverine. You just wrinkled your nose, didn’t you? Stomping a skunk cabbage is nearly a waste of time, by the way. I swear that one time I thought I heard one snicker and say – with a Jersey accent – “is dat’ all you got fer me?” Indeed, stomping cabbages just makes me look crazy or ridiculous to fishermen on the other bank of the river.